Fast Five: What I’m Looking Forward To in the 2018 NASCAR Season

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway today, with the star-laden Advance Auto Parts Clash, a week ahead of the sport’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

Every season has storylines, and this one is no different. As NASCAR makes its annual trip to the beach, here are the five things I’m most looking forward to for the 2018 season.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the broadcast booth

The 2017 season marked Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell as a driver in the Cup Series, but he is not leaving the sport by any means.

Junior continues to own an XFinity Series team, and plans to run at least one one-off event in that series this year. He will also be in a very visible role for the second half of the 2018 season as an analyst for NBC Sports for their portion of the schedule, beginning at Daytona in July.

It’s great that the driver who has been voted Most Popular Driver for the last 15 consecutive years is staying involved in the sport, and in a way that he will be seen and heard by the fans. It’s also always a great idea for a broadcast network to add a just-retired driver to their coverage, as he will have excellent insight into the drivers and teams, since he just competed against them; Earnhardt also has a phenomenal knowledge of the sport’s past, given his family history and his own passion for it.

4. Who can match Truex’s stage-racing success?

Last year, in the first season of stage racing, Martin Truex Jr. mastered the new concept almost instantly and his 19 stage victories and eight race wins propelled him to his first Cup Series title.

Now, as the sport has had a year to adjust to stage racing, who will step up to match Truex’s mastery in 2018?

Kyle Busch won 14 stages in 2017, and Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson each won eight. And it was Larson, not Truex, who had the most stage top 10s, earning 56 of them. In addition, several young stars seem primed to rise to the next level in 2018 (see below).

It will also be interesting to see if more drivers win stages in 2018. Last year, there were more race winners (15) than stage winners (13), due in part to Truex and Busch’s stage dominance.

3. The Charlotte “roval”

NASCAR has made significant changes to the schedule for the early rounds of the Playoffs, with Las Vegas and Richmond hosting the first two races of the first round, and Dover moved to the opening race of the second round. Another notable change is that the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis will now be the regular-season finale on Sept. 9.

But perhaps the biggest change is that the Playoff race at Charlotte on Sept. 30, now the last race of the first round, will now be run on the track’s “roval” — racing jargon for a road course-oval combo, as the circuit will include parts of the 1.5-mile oval and the infield road course.

This will be the first race since 1987 that NASCAR has had three road-course races in a season, something which I find as a great change for the sport. Adding one to the Playoffs is also a welcome change.

The new layout will be a unique challenge for the drivers and teams, especially with the event’s timing as a cut-off race in the Playoffs. Who will conquer the sport’s newest challenge?

2. The emergence of young stars

Two rookies enter the Cup Series full-time in 2018, as both take over a storied ride: defending XFinity Series champion William Byron takes over the No. 24 Hendrick seat, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will be in the Petty No. 43 full-time after subbing four races last year for the injured Aric Almirola. Both have the talent and the personality to be big stars in the very near future.

But in addition to these two, other young guns are ready to establish themselves more firmly among the sport’s upper echelon. Erik Jones moves to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 from Furniture Row Racing, taking over Matt Kenseth’s seat, while Ryan Blaney joins Penske Racing, who is expanding to three cars with the new No. 12 team. Both should be threats to win often, and have legitimate shots at contending for the championship this fall.

Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in the No. 88 car at Hendrick Motorsports; many forget that he has 81 Cup Series starts between a stint in the No. 88 filling in for the concussed Earnhardt in 2016, as well as stints at the smaller teams of Tommy Baldwin Racing and BK Racing. Former XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez also shows promise as he moves into his second season.

Oh, and there’s one other rising star primed for a huge 2018… some guy named Elliott.

1. The next level for Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott enters his third Cup Series season, and this year changes over to the No. 9 car at Hendrick Motorsports, driving for the same team but changing numbers after the opportunity arose to bring back to the Elliott family the number made legendary by Bill Elliott, Chase’s father.

Chase has not won a Cup Series race yet, though he has come painstakingly close on numerous occasions, including five runner-up finishes in 2017. Yet he seems primed for a breakout year in 2018, especially given a strong Playoff performance last year, finishing fifth in the final standings. Many feel one win may open the floodgates and lead to many victories.

With Earnhardt Jr. now retired, Elliott is set to take over as the sport’s most popular driver (I wasn’t sure about this, until at Darlington last year I noticed the number of Elliott shirts nearly equaled that of Earnhardt). But to validate that title in 2018, he needs to have the success to match — and he is more than capable of doing just that.

Elliott is already a star, but this year — with the timing of Earnhardt’s retirement and Elliott’s potential on-track success– may be the perfect storm for the humble, relatable Georgian to hit the fast track to superstardom, as in Junior’s absence he may be exactly what the sport is looking for.

 

 

Daytona Speedweeks Schedule

Sunday, Feb. 11
12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying
3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash (75-lap exhibition race for 2017 pole winners, Playoff drivers and past Clash winners)

Thursday, Feb. 15
7 p.m. — CanAm Duels (Sets the starting lineup for the Daytona 500)

Friday, Feb. 16
7:30 p.m. — NextEra Energy Resources 250 (Camping World Truck Series race)

Saturday, Feb. 17
2:30 p.m. — Powershares QQQ 300 (XFinity Series race)

Sunday, Feb. 18
2:30 p.m. — 60th Daytona 500

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Column: An Unexciting Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl LII is tonight, but I’m not excited.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still watch — it’s the Super Bowl after all — but I’m the least excited I have ever been on any Super Bowl Sunday since I started watching them 14 years ago.

A big part of the reason dates back to my maiden Super Bowl, the 38th one in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, birthing a distaste for the Patriots that has grown ever since.

The principals from that 2003 team are still around in quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, even at 40, is as good as ever, taking home his third NFL MVP Award at last night’s NFL Honors and continuing to build his case that he may be objectively the best player to ever play the game.

Now, as the Patriots play their third Super Bowl in four years and their eighth in 17, it’s hard for me to be excited about watching the same old thing, especially since they are favored to win another Lombardi Trophy. If they do, they would have won each of those three appearances in the last four years and six of their eight since 2001.

Depending on who from Las Vegas you read, the Patriots are between four- and five-point favorites, although I think they’re even heavier favorites than that, given that they’ve been here before and seem to be able to come back from anything (see: multiple Super Bowl comebacks, this year’s AFC Championship Game, etc.).

They are facing an upstart Philadelphia Eagles team which has come from nowhere to get here. They posted a 13-3 regular season, primarily with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, then won their two NFC playoff games, with backup signal-caller Nick Foles under center after Wentz’s torn ACL cost him the season.

It’s cool to see a team that has been down recently — before this season they had one playoff appearance in the last six years, which ended in the first round — make this run to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have relished the underdog role this postseason, as without Wentz they were underdogs to both the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

But neither one of those games were against the mighty Patriots, the “evil empire” if you will, who are in the midst of the greatest sustained run of excellence in NFL history, dating back to Brady’s first season and Belichick’s second in 2001. This run includes a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As such, I am mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of another Patriots title tonight, even while hoping that my forecast is incorrect.

Perhaps it will be; eight straight MVPs to play in the Super Bowl have lost, including Brady 10 years ago in the Super Bowl XLII classic against a Giants team that was far heavier underdogs than tonight’s Eagles.

But by expecting Brady to end that trend before the game even starts, I’m hoping to dampen the disappointment level around 10 p.m. tonight when the Patriots are inevitably celebrating, again.

Oh well. It’s almost baseball season.

 

Prediction: Patriots 28, Eagles 20

Column: MLB Free Agency Unusually Slow This Winter

Forget the hypothetical of “what would it be like to run an MLB team” — this year I’m actually going to do it. All I need is a couple hundred million dollars and the cooperation of MLB to allow me to start an expansion team less than two months before Opening Day.

With any luck, by the first week of November I’ll be lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy as a World Series champion.

How am I going to do this, you ask? I’ll simply sign a team of current free agents, and that team will be so deep and talented that they’ll win it all this fall.

***

Of course I’m kidding about starting a team, but the fact is, even just two weeks from Spring Training, the MLB free agent market has moved so slow this winter that there still remain enough quality free agents on the market that a hypothetical team of them could win the World Series.

If you’re skeptical, check out this potential roster:

Catchers: A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy
Infielders: Todd Frazier, J.J. Hardy, Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Brandon Phillips, Neil Walker
Outfielders: Jose Bautista, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, J.D. Martinez
Starting Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn
Relief Pitchers: Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Tony Watson, Tom Wilhelmsen

Every position has an All-Star-caliber player on the board, with all except catcher also featuring incredible depth on a hypothetical team.

Having this many high-quality free agents available on Feb. 2 seems unprecedented (with the exception of the strike offseason of 1994-95), and due to the high volume of unsigned players, the MLB Players Association is considering running a Spring Training camp for these players to attend until they sign, and has even discussed a potential work stoppage in protest of the high number of unsigned players (more on that later).

Looking closely at the current MLB landscape, there are reasons for this offseason’s historically-slow market.

With the recent success of the Cubs and Astros, winning the last two World Series as the dividend of their massive rebuilding projects, more teams are following that model, going all-in on rebuilding — some would even call it tanking — trying to win later by building up the talent in their farm system at the expense of the current success of the major league club.

Because of this, more teams than ever are uninterested in spending the millions of dollars it takes to sign free agents. Outspoken agent Scott Boras pointed this out to The Athletic a week ago, saying “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer… that is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”

Those comments are quite stern, and should be taken with at least a moderate grain of salt since Boras is always brash, and here is venting frustration that his players are not yet signed. But he may have actually been under-selling the number of teams opting not to compete in the free agent market — according to Jayson Stark, 13 of the 30 MLB teams have not signed a position player to a major-league contract this offseason.

Another factor, and one less discussed than the number of teams rebuilding, is the absolutely loaded free agent class coming next winter (Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson,  Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are just the headliners, with many others also set to be free agents).

With a historically-good group set to be free agents next winter, it is entirely possible that teams are consciously not spending money now to keep funds available to offer big contracts to major players this time next year.

Unfortunately, these factors have combined to negatively impact the current free agents listed in the hypothetical team above and others, as it is February and they still don’t know where they will play in the 2018 season and beyond.

The possibility of a work stoppage by the MLBPA has reportedly been discussed, although it’s unknown how realistic that possibility actually is. Such a move would certainly not be popular among fans (See: 1994 MLB strike), but certainly is not unprecedented — remember, the first time MLB and the MLBPA went through a round of collective bargaining negotiations without a work stoppage was not until 2002.

So maybe that expansion team full of current free agents isn’t such a bad idea. If it prevents a work stoppage, and thus a black eye on baseball, it may be priceless.